Students wearing face masks return from school in Islamabad on November 24, 2020, after the government announced that all schools across the country will remain closed from November 25 to contain the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

After reopening the schools for two months, the Pakistani Education Ministry has decided to close all educational institutions for a further 45 days given the increase in Covid-19 cases in the country.

Media have been reporting that infections have snowballed at an alarming rate since last month. The current surge has led to the closure of the educational institutions for the second term.

After the closure was announced, the private educational sector requested that Prime Minister Imran Khan review the decision. Khan tweeted that the country cannot bear more economic constraints and businesses will continue under “smart lockdowns.” This has led to a standoff between the government and private educational sectors and a belief that the government is deliberately playing down the importance of education.

Nevertheless, questions that warrant serious attention have remained unaddressed. Will Pakistan’s education system, already stumbling, revert to its pre-pandemic status once the pandemic is over? Second, can the government curb the pandemic by only closing educational institutions?

Unlike the situation caused by the sudden outbreak of the pandemic that forced governments to opt for abrupt lockdowns rather than having an effective plan first, Pakistan couldn’t come up with a feasible plan despite having a two-month dip in Covid-19 cases starting in September.

Unfortunately, alternative ways to continue educational activities in Pakistan are inadequate. Transformation of the education system to online learning has not worked, because of weak or unavailable Internet connections during first lockdown.

Closing educational institutions is a sane decision. However, it is only one side of a bigger picture.

Research to measure the effectiveness of school closures in controlling N1H1 influenza in Wales and England during the pandemic of 1918 reveals other factors that were more effective in controlling the pandemic.

Led by Daihai He, an associate professor of applied mathematics at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a group of researchers analyzed three factors to assess the transmission of the pandemic in 1918. Those factors were school re-openings and closures, air temperature changes, and changes in human behavior in response to the pandemic.

Interestingly, the team found that along with opening and closing of schools, which accounted for a 40% decrease in cases, and air temperature (43%), change in behavior toward the pandemic – keeping social distance and adopting recommended measures – remained the leading factor in controlling the N1H1 outbreak.

To control the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan solely relies on closing schools. Routine business has been given a green signal to operate. Places of business are the most crucial junctures where standard operating procedures are not followed properly.

On the other hand, behavior changes in response to the pandemic are minimal because of a widely accepted belief that Covid-19 is a myth. This has led to a lack of social distancing in workplaces in general and businesses in particular. In such a scenario, controlling the pandemic merely through closing educational institutions might not be gainful.

The pandemic has pushed the entire world to enhance efforts to find ways out of this menace. In the light of widely conducted research, it is also certain that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on student performance when they get back to their schools once the outbreak is over.

For instance, research conducted by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform in May found that students will lose 37-50% of gained knowledge in mathematics that they would have attained had schools remained open. Comparatively, the students in arts will be deprived of 63-68% of knowledge.

This does not bode well for Pakistan’s education system. The current literacy rate in Pakistan is 59.13%, which is only a slight increase compared with 56.98% in 2014. It is predictable that the pandemic will have a drastic impact on the overall literacy rate too. Moreover, the closure of schools could continue for an uncertain period until a vaccine against the virus is available to all nations of the world.

Pakistan might lie at the butt end in the queue of competitors waiting to receive the vaccine,
exacerbating the situation. Closing schools alone will not have any significant result unless human behavior toward the pandemic changes.

Ayaz Khan is a journalist and researcher from Pakistan. He covers climate change across the region and Pakistan. He tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno